decanted. a winemaker’s journey


The beauty of the Napa Valley is unquestioned.

The beauty of the Napa Valley is unquestioned.

(2016) Documentary (Digital Cave) Steve Reynolds, Mike Martin, Julien Fayard, Anthony Bell, Heidi Barrett, Phillippe Melka, Arturo Irucuto, Aaron Pott, Michael Scholz, Andy Wilcox, Alex Mossman, Fred Schwartz. Directed by Nick Kovacic

First off, for the sake of complete honesty, I lived a good portion of my adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area and spent many lovely days in the Napa Valley. A good friend of mine had a bed and breakfast there (the beautiful Country Garden Inn which she is sadly no longer connected with) and like many of those who live in the Valley, knew everyone (Napa is notorious for having a community in which everyone is at least on an acquaintance basis). I got to know several of the vineyards and even a few of the vintners (ah, V. Sattui, home of the amazing Gamay Rouge).

Wine has always been part of the civilized world. Something about a good glass of wine relaxes the soul and allows for contemplation. No other beverage on Earth is so analyzed, so beloved. Wine is the subject of rapturous prose and prosaic discussion. We can endlessly contemplate the difference between wines from one region with another, one varietal with another and never say all that there is to be said. Wine is a bit of madness mixed in with the civility.

When you think of American wine, you largely are thinking of California’s Napa Valley. Although it only produces about 3% of American wine, the Mediterranean-like climate and volcanic soil produce some of the best wines on Earth. A whopping 95% of the wineries are family owned – only recently have beer brewers joined that party with the advent of craft beers. Napa/Sonoma has always been on the forefront of that.

But what makes a wine great? Now there’s a subject for discussion – everyone has different ideas about that. How a wine gets from grape to glass is another. This is ostensibly a look at that process as we watch the seasons change in Napa from harvest to harvest. While this film mainly centers on a start-up, Italics Winery started by Texan Mike Martin and managed by Steve Reynolds of the Reynolds Family Winery, we also get commentary from Napa legend Helen Barrett who is an expert on blending wines that lead to bottles that retail for $1500 apiece to French immigrants Julien Fayard and Phillippe Melka as well as vintner Anthony Bell.

However the emphasis is on the charismatic Reynolds as he works to get Italics underway from the ground up. It’s not an easy venture and there are many parts and pieces that have to be in place; storage of the barrels has to be climate controlled and cool and there has to be enough of it to fit plenty of barrels but as they are digging a cave for barrel storage, the work is slow and not done by the time the grapes are harvested and pressed into what will eventually become wine.

We get a sense that the people portrayed here love what they do – there’s no doubting that. We also get a sense that the work is hard and unending. Sometimes we get a picture in our heads that Napa winemakers spend their days sipping chardonnays, eating amazing friends and having parties but the fact is that more time is spent in the fields, checking on the grapes to make sure that they are growing properly and not being affected by insects or disease, checking on the barrels to make sure the wine is fermenting properly and working in the labs to make sure that the blends are just right.

In fact, winemakers judging from the documentary spend a surprising amount of time in the laboratory and utilize a surprising amount of technology, examining their soil with infrared sensors, and utilizing various programs that help them determine which soil is best for which grape. When you think about it, that makes a lot of sense; Napa Valley is close to another kind of valley – Silicon Valley. You would figure that some of the tech geniuses in that valley would turn their attention to Napa.

But much of the work is done by hand by humans and utilizing methods that go back hundreds of years, even thousands. There’s a continuity to winemaking that you don’t get in almost any other profession; even the blending is largely done by hand with a human being tasting various combinations until the right one is found. It is arduous work but at the end of the day, soul satisfying and you get that these winemakers get that satisfaction.

The big problem with the movie is that we only get a sense of things – the filmmakers tend to skip over a lot of detail (which I imagine they thought would be somewhat boring to the viewer) and we get mainly highlights. There are some truly beautiful images here – Matthew Riggieri and Nate Pesce are to be commended – but there is also a tendency to overuse fast-motion photography to denote the passage of time. Once or twice is fine but especially towards the end of the movie it becomes a bit tedious. In any case, I would rather the filmmakers given us a little more “nuts and bolts.” They certainly had plenty of time – the run time is only 82 minutes so there was certainly room to pad things a bit with more information. They had an opportunity to demystify and educate and chose not to take it. That’s a shame.

But the cinematography brought back many pleasant memories of lazy days hopping from winery to winery and I’ll admit that colors my perception here just a tad. There is a beauty in winemaking that for wine lovers – and I’ll admit I’m not so much a connoisseur so much as an admirer – is part of the overall enjoyment. I will say that wine is a highly social beverage; some of my best memories are friends and family, sipping glasses of wine around a table or a tasting room.

This likely won’t heighten your understanding of wine any, but it will give you more a sense of the pride and the joy of the people who make it. As such it fills a niche in wine documentaries that perhaps could use further exploration, but I was quite happy to enjoy what was delivered here. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a glass of Merlot with my name on it.

REASONS TO GO: The beautiful surroundings and the hard work involved are both well-captured. You get a sense that these people truly love what they do.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks detail.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable viewing for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gaghan’s first film in eleven years, his last being Syriana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: SOMM
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Don’t Kill It

SOMM


When it comes to fine wine, it's best not to whine, fine?

When it comes to fine wine, it’s best not to whine, fine?

(2012) Documentary (Goldwyn) Ian Cauble, Dlynn Proctor, Dustin Wilson, Brian McClintic, Shayn Bjornholm, Fred Dame, Bo Barrett, Mercedes Lam, Michael Mina, Peter Neptune, Jay Fletcher, Reggie Narito, Andrea Cecci, Rachael Wilson, Elizabeth Dowty, Michael Jordan, Rajat Parr, Jay Fletcher, Eric Railsback, Whitney Fisher, Margaux Pierog. Directed by Jason Wise

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The appreciation of fine wine is the hallmark of a civilized person. Sommeliers take this appreciation to a new level and master sommeliers are perhaps the ultimate expression in this regard. Their palates are ultra-refined; their knowledge second to none. A great wine can turn a great meal into a memorable one.

Becoming a master sommelier however is no easy task. Since the certification process began in 1977, only 197 people around the world have passed the test. Many spend years in preparation only to be disappointed.

The Master Sommelier examination is administered once a year and is done in three parts; an oral exam on general wine knowledge, a service exam which puts the applicants in a restaurant situation with hostile, ignorant or demanding customers and a blind taste test. The latter can be the most daunting.

We follow four close friends as they prepare for the 2011 exam; Ian Cauble, a brilliant and driven young man who his friends affectionately refer to as “Dad” for his tendency to take a paternal role in getting the young men to study. He is a flash card ninja and possibly the most knowledgeable of the group. Dlynn Proctor is an elegant and dapper young man who is self-possessed and confident; he radiates authority and knowledge.

Brian McClintic is married and badly wants to pass the exam; he feels guilty that he has spent so much time on the exam and wants to give his wife her husband back. He is fully aware that the master sommelier certification opens a whole lot of doors and he really needs to go through at least one of them for the sake of his family. Finally there’s Dustin Wilson, a stabilizing influence on the other two and another very focused individual. He’s the kind of guy who’ll do flash cards on Skype in the wee hours of the morning to help out his friends.

We get to watch these guys as they are mentored by some of the finest sommeliers on the planet including Steve Dame, thought to be the best American sommelier and one of the first grand masters. When he speaks, a young master in training is best advised to listen. That’s pretty much true of all of their mentors although alas, some don’t – one of the applicants has the temerity to question one of the master’s veracity when being quizzed on the wine tasting aspect of the test.

There’s no doubt it’s a grueling process; the movie is very successful in communicating it. While some might question how rough it is to sit back and sample lots of good wine, being able to discern one from the other with pinpoint accuracy requires a finally trained palate and that doesn’t come from sipping a glass of grocery store-bought chardonnay on the back porch.

The filmmakers are also successful in getting us to care and root for these applicants which isn’t always easy; at times they can be a bit arrogant (well, at least one or two of them). These seem to be genuinely decent guys who want to be successful, not just for themselves but for their families.

Where the movie fails a bit is in the choice of us watching them do wine tastings; yes they are in several different venues (from their own homes to a restaurant with their mentors to online Skype sessions) but it amounts to the same thing. We see almost none of the service portion of the test, and even then only one candidate is presented. I would have liked to have seen how all four of them responded in a similar situation and less how each of them can distinguish merlot from one region from another.

You don’t need to be a wine connoisseur or even like wine at all to enjoy the film. This isn’t so much about wine or even about being a sommelier so much as being about chasing a difficult dream. People do it for all sorts of reasons – pride, financial gain, opportunity or even just to prove to themselves that they can. We can all relate to that in some form or another. That is the triumph of the human spirit and the movie celebrates that; of course, any celebration is just that much better with a glass of a good wine.

REASONS TO GO: Involves the audience. Doesn’t require an extensive knowledge of wine. Fascinating insight into the world of the sommelier.

REASONS TO STAY: Could have used some editing – too many wine tastings.

FAMILY VALUES:  Nothing here that should worry any parents about bringing kids to see it – hey get them started early on wine appreciation, I say.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Master Sommelier exam is administered by the Court of Master Sommeliers, who have four levels of expertise – Introductory, Certified, Advanced and Master. Candidates must pass exams for each level before being allowed to progress to the next.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet. Although Goldwyn has picked up the film, it is making the rounds on the festival circuit. A theatrical release is possible for later this year.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Taiwan Oyster and further coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!